Ascension Day: ‘The Rise and Fall of God’
Luke 24:36-53 (Acts 1:4-11)
Ascension Day! I know, I know, most of us are like: Say that again!
Most of us who have been Christians for some time now and heard of this strange thing called ‘The Ascension of Jesus,’ but, if truth be told, we treat it like we treat a Big Issue seller: We know it’s there, but we can’t wait to get passed it and onto other things.
And even when we do, for a brief moment, consider the ascension of Jesus, we will most likely have those embarrassing images from film and TV in our heads of that awkward moment when Jesus is blessing his disciples, hand raised (as we see in much post-Enlightenment art), as he is strangely lifted into the sky, and hid behind a fluffy cloud. If we’re not laughing at how silly it looks on the screen, we’re certainly left wondering if it really happened like that!
And so the Ascension of Jesus has become like that embarrassing uncle everyone avoids at weddings. It becomes a footnote in history and to the gospel story we tell. By all means mention the teaching and the cross and the resurrection and the reign of Jesus, but….well, the ascension is more than a tad embarrassing.
I want to suggest it is only embarrassing until we fully immerse ourselves in the fullness of what the Bible is actually saying and doing with this concept, this theology of Christ, this Ascension.
For we know, that the death of Jesus on the Cross means we sinners can be forgiven. We know, that the resurrection of Jesus means that we are justified before the Father. And the ascension of Jesus means that we should know, that without this saving and redeeming Advocate before the Father, we would have no confidence in grace; no certainty in salvation; no assurance of forgiveness; no High Priest before the Father making intercession for us to God!
The Ascension of Jesus then, is no mere awkward visual to stumble over; it is no mere conclusion to the Gospel stories that we can conveniently fudge. For without the Ascension, without Jesus going to the Father, we would have no Holy Spirit (‘Unless I go to the Father the HS cannot come to you….’).
And so, without the ‘Rise of God’ we do not get the ‘Fall of God’. Without Jesus ascending to his Father, we do not get his Holy Spirit descending to us. Yet what is remarkable, is that even though this is strange to our minds and ears, the ascension is still a mixture of visual marvel, strange metaphor and utter mystery.
Here’s something to consider: What is heaven? Do you imagine a place of disembodied spirits wafting through various bright clouds with some kind of light in the distance? If you do, an illiterate medieval peasant is your guide here not the Bible.
How can it be merely ghostly figures wafting through some, let’s face it, pretty dull place, when Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man, God clothed in….FLESH, ascended to heaven in his human, fleshly body?
Ah! That should at least cause us to pause! The flesh of Jesus in heaven, on the throne, reigning and ruling and praying and saving. The ascension of Jesus’ physical body is validation of our physical bodies and that God is redeeming the whole person in the whole universe, a new heaven and a new earth, that we may be complete in Christ – the Son of God, who has been made exactly like us in every way, yet without sin [but with skin]!
This is why, in one sense, the verse in Luke 24:52 tells us they worshipped him. They could. Jesus was now shown to be the true King, the long promised Messiah, the Great High Priest, the Prophet, the Lamb that was slain before the creation of the world – this Jesus, embodies all the promises and fulfilments of God, as 2 Cor 1:20 says, “All God’s promises are Yes and Amen in him.”
And it is as Great High Priest, that can also cause us to pause and take stock. Much weight is made in evangelism of us inviting Jesus into our hearts! But the Bible doesn’t actually say that! What it does say is that, as High Priest, (and remember, the HP in the OT had the 12 jewels on a breast plate signifying the 12 tribes of Israel over his heart – and the significance of the number 12 in the Bible it means power, authority and wholeness).
So we have Jesus, our great HP, ascending to the throne, having fully paid for the sins of the world, in all power and authority, with us in His heart! Where my heart is fickle, His is steadfast; where my heart is idolatrous, His is faithful; where my heart is weak, His heart is strong; where my heart is guarded by all sorts of self-protective insecurities, His heart has been broken by a Roman spear on my behalf so mine wouldn’t have to be.
When I am prayerless, He remains as my Intercessor.
When I am hopeless, He remains in heaven as my Victor over sin.
When I am imperfectly human, there He stands, the perfect Human Being, on my behalf.
The ascension then has given us both ‘confidence’ and ‘access’. This permanently open door to the Father [this torn veil] gives us the brazen confidence of a child to rush in and know we will find ‘grace and mercy.’
Now I know, that most if not all of us have had to discipline in some way our children and/or grandchildren. And yet, we don’t take pleasure in it, neither do we wish to see their permanent (eternal) shame and guilt. But when the ‘offender’ rushes in, in certain trust that our love for them conquers everything, that is the kind of trust and access we have to God because of the Ascended Jesus. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them” said Jesus, “For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
But there is so much more. Ephesians, Colossians and other places say that we reign with Christ…now! Not in an arrogant triumphalist way, but in a ‘this is precisely what Jesus has achieved for us’ kind of way! We reign with Jesus as “trophies of his grace.” As prisoners set free in a war with sin, death and the devil. As once rebellious sinners who raged against the Kingdom of God, and become, because of Jesus at the Cross, resurrection and ascension, we, those who are found in the heart of Christ, are made into royal heirs of the glorious king (Eph 2:7).
So the Ascension of Jesus is no footnote to the Gospel story. It is as essential as water is to a garden, as hops is to beer, as eating is to us. But having said we share in this with Christ (because that’s what the Gospel achieves and not what illiterate medieval peasants think), we all know, that this victory of Jesus is not complete in us …yet! It is finished. The war is won, but the battles we face with temptation, sin and greed and lust and power all go on and on.
That’s why Jesus intercedes for us.
But we don’t stand in league with a defeated Satan, we stand with Christ who has defeated Satan. We sin, yes. We may even despise ourselves, secretly loathing the very flesh that covers us; hating the way our heart is weak and our mind is flabby. The same old sins drag us down, and so we think, “God doesn’t really love me, He can’t, I mean, just look at me!”
In despair like this, remember the words of the great Reformer Martin Luther, who said 450 years ago, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, then tell him this: I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf, his name is Jesus, the Son of God, and where he is, there I shall also be!”
This is not arrogant triumphalism but the certainty of what Jesus has done, and who Jesus says he is. This is the bold confidence that can only be created by the Gospel, by the Cross, by the resurrection, by the ascension, by Jesus.
What He does is take the ‘i’ from ‘sin’ and craft it into an ‘o’.
From sin to son is our story. Jesus wins. Where he is, there we shall also be!
And finally, this is not to say that we merely cling on and hope for the best, hope for death, so that we can be with Jesus. No. Remember, unless Jesus ascended, he couldn’t send the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is sent for a reason:
Luke 24:45-49. This is not pie in the sky when you die. This is Mission Impossible made possible only by the blood of Jesus. And now, the ascension means we have a mission. To proclaim what Jesus has achieved, the gospel proclamation of repentance and the promise of forgiveness of sins in his name.
It is this Jesus who was the Spirit-bearer in his earthly life, who is now the Spirit-giver in his ascended life. The days of the prophet Joel are here: The Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh. The fresh wind of the Spirit is now blowing all aver the world.
What this means for us, having realised that the ascension is no mere footnote, no embarrassing uncle in our Gospel story, no qwerk in our theology.
But rather, the very empowerment for mission because Jesus rose and the Spirit fell.
One of the Apostle John’s most famous disciples, a man named Polycarp understood this, he said in the 2nd century, “Therefore, prepare for action and serve God in fear and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd, and believing in the one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead and gave him glory and a throne at his right hand. All things are subjected to him, who is coming [back] as judge of the living and the dead.”
It is no accident that Luke ends his Gospel account with the ascension, and begins his book of Acts with the ascension. And in the account in Acts, the disciples are told, “This same Jesus you saw lifted to heaven will come back the same way you saw him go.”
So the ascension then is what one 20th century theologian John Robinson calls “the advance notice of the end.” Jesus is coming back – therefore preach and proclaim the Gospel, proclaim Christ everyday, everywhere to everyone.
Live your lives knowing your King and Saviour reigns and rules, and when the devil throws your sins in your face, tell him to get lost [in Jesus name] because you belong to Jesus, and where he is, there you shall also be!
All I am trying to say is this: Jesus is Lord.
And so, in the words of the other great reformer, John Calvin.…
“Thus, since He has gone up, and is in heaven for us, let us note that we need not fear to be in this world. It is true that we are subject to so much misery that our condition is pitiable, but at that we need neither be astonished nor confine our attention to ourselves. Thus, we look to our Head Who is already in heaven, and say,
Although I am weak, there is Jesus Christ Who is powerful enough to make me stand upright.
Although I am feeble, there is Jesus Christ who is my strength.
Although I am full of miseries, Jesus Christ is in immortal glory and what He has will some time be given to me and I shall partake of all His benefits.
Yes, the devil is called the prince of this world. But what of it? Jesus Christ holds him in check for He is King of heaven and earth.
There are devils above us in the air who make war against us. But what of it? Jesus Christ rules above, having entire control of the battle. Thus, we need not doubt that He gives us the victory.
I am here subject to many changes, which may cause me to lose courage. But what of it? The Son of God is my Head, Who is exempt from all change. I must, then, take confidence in Him.
This is how we must look at His Ascension, applying the benefit to ourselves.”
(John Calvin, Deity of Christ, pp. 238-239)
I saw this reflection of a tree in a puddle, in Devon, and marvelled.
The first photo is a mysterious shot that shall remain a secret (but I took it)!